What is Soap?

So what, exactly, is soap?

It's something we use multiple times a day, every day, and don't really think about. It's just there, has always been there, and is just part of our lives.

Unfortunately, some of us have been using “soap” that's not...well...soap.

Do not be fooled by these impostors! They lurk in the soap aisle, but go by names such as “body bar”, “shower gel”, “body wash”, and “beauty bar”. None of these are soaps- they are detergents!

Soap, in its simplest description, is the product of a chemical reaction between fat (animal or plant) and an alkali (otherwise referred to here as “lye”). Lye can be either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, but, in the case of bar soap, it would most likely be sodium hydroxide. This reaction is called saponification.

Just some pumice soap...

Just some pumice soap...

When you wash with soap, the molecules in the soap bind with both the water you're using and the oils on your skin (either your own or in whatever grossness you need to wash off) and allows the oils to mix with water. The combination of this binding, plus the actual physical act of washing, allows for the removal of dirt from your skin, washing it down the drain.

Detergents, on the other hand, are made with synthetic ingredients. Some of them are chemicals that create foaming or lather, some are antibacterial, and some are simply fragrance and dyes (your “pomegranate” hand wash is the farthest thing from an actual pomegranate). Not only are these ingredients harmful to your body, but they're harmful to the environment as well. What's not being absorbed by your skin is washing down the drain and ending up in your drinking water. I don't know about you, but personally I'm not a huge fan of drinking phthalates and triclosan.

How do you know if you're using actual soap? Take a look at what it's called. If it's called “soap”, then you're fine. If it's called something that's a bit evasive (“body wash”, for example) then what you have is definitely not soap. Also, always be sure to look at the ingredients! Even if it's soap, you should know what it is you are putting on your body and why!